A friend of mine, an actress in New York, performed in a long-running Broadway hit. Every couple of years, she says, the creator of the show added or subtracted a few songs, replaced a couple of the veteran performers with new faces, and picked up the pace of the musical numbers. "It's like a blood transfusion," she says. "When a show starts to get a little tired, it needs some iron-rich blood to perk things up."
There are several anemic restaurants in Kansas City that could use a little Broadway-style rejuvenation. (The Savoy Grill has been resting on its laurels for so long that those poor laurels have practically disintegrated.) Leawood's three-year-old Trezo Vino was hardly suffering from rigor mortis, but it definitely needed some enlivening. So the restaurant's owner, Mark Walker, took a big step in May: He handed over management of the restaurant to Colby and Megan Garrelts, owners of the critically praised Bluestem restaurant in Westport.
"I've known Mark Walker for a long time," Colby Garrelts says, "and had gone to him to discuss investing in a new restaurant concept that Megan and I had developed. He told us that he liked what we did at Bluestem, and he wanted help in making changes at Trezo Vino. So instead of opening a new restaurant, we took over an existing property."
Garrelts says he found great satisfaction in the challenge. "I started in this business as a chef, but I love being a restaurateur. I have my staff in place here. John Brogran was my sous chef at Bluestem, and he's chef de cuisine at Trezo Vino. And my manager, Jeremy Lamb, is out here as a consultant."
Trezo Vino is not Bluestem South, though. The price point is different (Garrelts actually lowered prices after taking over), and so is the more casual style of the restaurant. The quality of the cuisine, however, is comparable. (Among the few Bluestem favorites to cross over to Trezo Vino: the Prince Edward Island mussels — black-shelled beauties drenched in the same intoxicating broth of white wine, garlic and shallots.)
It took a few months, but Colby and Megan Garrelts have completely redesigned the Trezo Vino menu. A couple of dishes from the previous incarnation — former executive chef Daniel White is now working at Urban Table — have been held over, though the ahi tuna tacos are now only on the lounge menu, and Colby Garrelts has seriously revised the recipe for the lobster macaroni and cheese.
"The menu is still evolving," he explains. "There are some dishes that are still in the work-in-progress stage. We've taken all the ingredients up a notch. We use local heirloom tomatoes now and Berkshire pork. The restaurant never really had its own culinary identity. It's still an Italian-influenced wine bar, but the food really reflects the food I like to eat, in the style that I like to eat it."
That's not a boast but an affirmation. Garrelts does have a distinctive style — it happens to be the way I like to eat, too.
Mostly. I'll admit I was underwhelmed by the grilled-chicken pizza the day I sampled it. The chicken had stayed on the grill a shade too long, and the so-called spicy peanut sauce needed a bit more heat. On my second visit, the lightly baked flatbread crust of another pizza was topped with crème fraîche, chilled smoked salmon, capers and red onion. It offered a refreshing respite on a blistering night.
The salads are works of art. An heirloom beet salad was beautifully composed of two different kinds of beets — one a deep garnet, the other nearly amethyst — resting like jewels on a pile of greens and sprinkled with bits of fluffy chevre, candied walnuts and a brisk sherry-shallot vinaigrette.
A less traditional salad is a chorus line of balsamic-marinated melon cubes — honeydew and cantaloupe — each sheathed with a veil of La Quercia coppa and a sprig of peppery arugula and drizzled with a citrus caramel. And there was nothing traditional, or even recognizable, about the "fresh summer minestrone" served one night, a jade-green concoction poured from a teapot over little toasted fregola sarda pasta balls. The buttery vegetable puree was made from asparagus, peas, parsley and onion, and was soothingly delicious, but I grew up eating minestrone ("big soup") as a main course, and this artistic creation wasn't nearly hearty enough.
The salads go well with the bruschetta — we indulged in the four variations (three slices of each) for $14. There's the familiar mozzarella-and-tomato version, another topped with creamy chevre and peperonata peppers, and two innovations by Garrelts: a memorable spread of chicken livers and caramelized onion, and delicate tuna conserva (wonderful with the crusty Farm to Market bread).
In heat as brutal as that visited on Kansas City in recent weeks, pasta dishes sound more alluring than heavier meat entrées. Simplest is a tasty bowl of spaghetti tossed with olive oil and capers and heaped with crushed heirloom tomatoes from the Kurlbaum farm in Kansas City, Kansas. The potato gnocchi here, despite being smothered in a supple brown-butter sauce with baby spinach and fresh peas, are lighter than air. Colby's rethought lobster macaroni and cheese is ridiculously decadent, though, prepared with a rich béchamel and a fine, sharp aged cheddar.
The entrée courses are not to be ignored in any weather. A hunk of vividly pink wild salmon comes expertly grilled and perched on a mess of fat, starchy cannellini beans, smoky bacon and chicory-flavored escarole. Midwestern fried chicken goes upscale with Garrelts' plump Amish-hen breasts, pan-fried and succulent, served piccata-style in a silky, lemony sauce. The fish special one night I dined here was a plate of fat, sweet scallops, pan-seared in butter with fresh asparagus.
Megan Garrelts' dessert list isn't elaborate, but it's full of rewards, including a light, summery lemon-ricotta cheesecake and a glossy, coffee-flavored panna cotta. But her star attraction, without question, is a cold, delectable arrangement of chocolate sponge cake layered with semifreddo — a traditional Italian delicacy of partly frozen chocolate cream. Utter perfection.
Colby Garrelts, who grew up in Johnson County, says running an urban boîte like Bluestem is only slightly different from operating a suburban dining room. Kansas City customers, he says, were drawn right away to the sophistication and attention to detail at Bluestem. In contrast, he says, "You have to win customers in Johnson County over. There are not many chef-driven restaurants like this one out here — at least, not south of 95th Street."
But Colby and Megan Garrelts put on a good, convincing show, and word will spread. Once people hear about this new, improved Trezo Vino, it'll be a long-running hit.